Any pastor of a church over 70 people[1] has to develop some kind of rhythm or strategy with which they encourage their church into greater fruitfulness in Christ. For better or ill, we’ve been calling these things ‘programs’ for some time, despite the computer metaphor it conjures nowadays.

On this side of the pandemic, it’s right and praiseworthy to say that the evangelical church needs to get back to catechism, or deeper Bible study, or something different, but the pastor or ministry leader still has to sit behind a desk on a Tuesday morning and think about how that very discipleship can be done at ‘scale,’ however modest that scale is. As such, a pastor needs a plan — a program — for discipleship, and in our church we’ve been feeling like we needed a different approach for some time.

By summer of 2021, like many churches, our people started emerging from the pandemic more regularly, but they weren’t emerging in the same way that they went into it. And even though it was time to rev the engine of church programming again, we experienced no small amount of emotional or attendance resistance to normal church programming that we had offered in the past: small groups in homes, volunteer shortages in key Sunday ministries, the regularity of student participation in the youth ministry, and several other programs. It’s been helpful, then, when we read other pastors like Mark Sayers outlining these phenomena as global trends.

However, through all these changes, I (Ben) had this nagging sense that there were programs in our midst that were working. If we take ‘working’ to mean ‘growing in attendance or fervor,’ I started noticing all the trends outside the church that seemed to be picking up steam last summer, and began asking our staff to notice.

So what did we notice? We noticed CrossFit, which has no shortage of new locations opening up near us, with more and more people joining. We also noticed that people kept mentioning various social media influencers on various platforms, and that there is no shortage of moderately successful new influencers. In sharp contrast to social media, we also noticed the homeschool movement growing in both fervor and attendance. And to provide one more quick head turn, we noticed our local pubs picking up steam with both the regulars and the newcomers.

Divining the Variables

“But what could all these ‘programs’ possibly have in common?” we thought. That’s when I (Dave) realized that there are at least two variables (and doubtless more) that are an ‘ask’ of any program: the time commitment and the risk involved. Time commitment is a simple enough category to understand. On the other hand, risk is a potentially too-broad category, so we defined ‘risk’ as expected life change that happens when someone joins a program: changing a diet, one’s emotions, one’s relationships, and so on.

Once we landed on those variables, we decided to track them on a double-axis graph. The horizontal axis tracks time commitment from low to high, and the vertical axis tracks risk from low to high. The first thing we did was plot where successful programs in our culture at-large were. And we immediately gained our first insight.

CrossFit asks for a LOT of risk: to do it the way it’s intended requires a lot of life change, and it also requires a high time commitment. The same is true with homeschooling; families previously going to public schools prior to the pandemic can attest to the shift in lifestyle regarding time commitment.

Alternatively, following an influencer or being a pub regular occur in the opposite quadrant, where lower risk and lower time commitment are asked of the patron.

It seemed, then, that programs gaining steam around us were pushing to the corners: either high risk and high time commitment, or low risk and low time commitment. Useful observations, we felt.

Using the Chart

So, then, in good chart fashion, we had to name our quadrants and put it to use for ourselves.

The Platoon Quadrant was inspired by Army usage, signifying that the number of adherents to a particular squad may be small (10 or 11 people), but the fervor and commitment would be high. The Consumer Quadrant was simple enough: there’s not a big ask for time or risk, so one can simply consume what is offered.

The Service Quadrant was next named, where high time commitment meets lower risk. We see the dynamics of the Service Quadrant in key volunteers: deacons, children’s ministry childcare for younger ages, and so on. Not a lot of life change is expected in the Service Quadrant, but it is time intensive.

And in the opposite quadrant from Service is, for lack of a better name, the Devotee Quadrant, where high risk is asked, but less time commitment. This quadrant is a tad more elusive to define, but we see its dynamics in play with the fans of various fads or trends (e.g. the keto diet, or fans of a boy band); ultimately a lot of life change is asked of the person, but the long-term time commitment doesn’t last. In our church, a program in the Devotee Quadrant would be a 6-week workshop like we offer for helping people personally craft a Rule of Life.

And so after naming the quadrants, we did the scary task of plotting our own programs on this chart. And here’s what we quickly had to be honest about: all of the programs that were failing in fervor or attendance were in the middle of the chart. The most consistent programs that were set to scale were asking our people for a medium amount of risk, and a medium amount of time commitment. It was the medium-ask programs where enthusiasm was waning, and where people were dropping out at a quick rate.

For instance, previously we had 10 small groups that met twice a month, and we’ve shut down 4 since 2021, and half of the current ones have strongly waned in enthusiasm. And what did those small groups look like? They looked medium-ask: people share a medium amount of vulnerability in a small group of 12 people with a medium amount of Bible study, and meetings meet a moderate amount of time (i.e. twice a month). The typical small group participants might make two or three meetings out of four, but they’ll never make all four. Small groups for us are in the middle, and faltering.

How did we get here?

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, perhaps one of the key intuitions of the megachurch-influenced program era of the evangelical church is that people were willing to give less time to the church. As a result, the evangelical church created streamlined programming in order to help people’s time really count. Some even called it the ‘simple church’ model. At a cultural level, then, this simple church model probably has in its DNA an assumption of the over-busy suburban family.

That’s why all our programming, when set to scale, wouldn’t really move past a certain invisible line on our chart. We named it the ‘line of most resistance,’ where evangelical churches historically would plan everything to the bottom and left of the line. The assumption was that more people would come if the program were below that line, and if the program went above or right of the line of most resistance, you couldn’t maintain a scaled program.

But, as we’ve detailed above, this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

Where do we go now?

Ultimately this is a diagnostic tool. It won’t tell you what to do. Jesus as Head of the Church, the Scriptures, your church’s particular tradition, and your local leadership should guide that. That said, for our church, we felt the diagnostics revealed something of a shift that we wanted to make. If what was gaining fervor in our culture were things in the Platoon and Consumer Quadrants, that’s how we wanted to begin shaping some of our church programming.

Now, a quick caveat: we don’t take the Consumer Quadrant to be an inherently negative space, though it may be in some instances. Rather, to ‘consume’ is a catch-all term we took to mean someone who didn’t have much time to give, was scared to risk, but didn’t mind receiving from some kind of program. For instance, sometimes people just need to come to a church to heal, and be seen, without much expected of them. This is especially true of those with prior church wounds. And so, they might benefit from more programming in the Consumer Quadrant.

In addition, the Consumer Quadrant may also get a crowd, which is what evangelical megachurches have been recommending for decades. The question then is begged: why would we do more things in the Consumer Quadrant if the evangelical church already attempts this and does it reasonably well? The answer depends on the kind of consumption that happens. Where the evangelical church has attempted higher attendance devoid of fruitfulness, we recommend consumer programs that aim at helping people become more human, as Jake Meador recently argued on his blog. An example: it is low-risk and low-time commitment for the church to ask families to host dinners, and have people sign up to join potlucks at those homes in groups of 10 in order to meet new people in the church. A real meal with real conversation is consumeristic in a sense because it’s low-risk and low-time commitment, but it invites deeper human interaction more than a livestream worship service.

So, with the assumption that people needed more low-risk, low-time commitment opportunities (Consumer Quadrant) in our church as well as more high-risk and high-time commitment opportunities (Platoon Quadrant), we first road-tested the usefulness of the chart’s insights with our burgeoning women’s ministry. I (Ben) talked with our women’s ministry leadership team through the insights we were gaining, they liked it, and came up with two complementary ideas. One: offer simple one-time events that help people meet each other and engage in human activity. Two: offer high-ask, intensive ways to hear from God and each other.

For the Consumer Quadrant, they came up with a women’s paint night in a local restaurant, where women were invited to paint with the up-front guidance of an expert in our church as she taught how she meditates with God through artistic creation. In attendance, this was the largest men’s or women’s ministry event we’ve ever done. A few months later, we offered a flower arrangement event, done similarly, and it was also hugely successful. In either event, women simply had a chance to use their hands and get to know each other in a casual way, and their fervor and attendance showed.

In the Platoon Quadrant, our women’s team has come up with a guerilla strategy to get women together to thoroughly share their entire life stories and how God has woven His way into all the good and bad. In a group of five, the women get together for five straight weeks in total confidentiality, with one woman sharing her story each week. If a woman can’t make it to one of the five weeks, she is asked not to participate at all for this cycle. Over a meeting of about 2 hours, a woman shares her faith journey for an extended time, and once done the group sits in silence for several minutes. Once the silence is over, each participant only gets to say one thing; namely, how she has seen God at work in the sharer’s life. Then, once this five-week program is over, willing women from that group are encouraged to go create their own new group in the church. We should add that this program is never advertised through any church communications, that it’s a high risk and a medium-time commitment, and it has gained an intense fervor in our church.

We have more plans for ways we will push into the Platoon Quadrant (along with higher-risk, medium-time commitments in the Devotee Quadrant) as well: silent retreats, smaller and less-programmed men’s retreats, ongoing contemplative spiritual direction, intensive Bible reading plans, and more rigorous Confirmation classes for high schoolers. But admittedly, we are only beginning our process, and beginning to see early fruit from the insights.

Who are we really talking about?

As this process has begun, there is one additional observation to make as it relates to our church: to the degree that people were affected by the pandemic, we believe the forces will be pushing toward the corners of the Platoon and Consumer Quadrants. So, if a person had children in school, or shifted any of their work to remote-based, or had to change churches, or moved locations, or had to change any lifestyle routine in a permanent way, it is this person that is more interested in pushing to the corners.

Alternatively, to the degree someone’s life hasn’t changed all that much, they’ll probably prefer to keep things at medium-risk and medium-commitment. If a retired person was golfing three days a week before the pandemic, and is golfing three days a week still, he is not wondering how the church can offer something different. Or, if a person was wealthy enough that the only change in their lifestyle was buying more consumer goods online, then he or she is probably still content with medium-risk and medium-commitment.

Wider Applicability

Given that we gleaned these insights from the cultural programs around us, we wonder if the insights have wider explanatory power. In media and journalism, consider that Substack has grown the influence and incomes of long-form writers as diverse as Freddie de Boer, Rod Dreher, and Ted Gioia (Platoon Quadrant), while Reddit also continues to gather a swarm (Consumer Quadrant). In contrast, legacy middlebrow publications such as The Atlantic or Newsweek continue to see readership decline.

In vocational choice, there is a return of the appeal of trades such as plumbers, mechanics, and electricians (Platoon), as well as an increase in people out of the labor force (Consumer), while Post-Secondary school enrollments have been in decline for several years (Middlebrow). We don’t hear a lot of people aspiring to be middle managers much these days.

In Christian intellectual growth, one can match the world’s largest Dante reading group (Platoon) with the rise of Christian social media influencers through YouTube and podcasting (Consumer), while the middlebrow Christian book publishing industry continues to wane. In fact, a Christian publisher won’t likely even consider an author these days unless they already have a consumer platform through social media, and so the tail wags the dog.

Even in overall Christian denominations in the West, one hears often of the increase in fervor of the evangelical convert to Eastern Orthodoxy (Platoon) alongside the accessible appeal of charismatic and pentecostal churches (Consumer). All the while, mainline Protestants continue their precipitous decline (Middlebrow).

Perhaps this is overwrought cultural analysis, but we wonder: is future ministry faithfulness to be found in a mass appeal to the center, or will it be found in a plethora of approaches that are simultaneously demanding and accessible?

Conclusion

We end where we began: these issues will be irrelevant in churches where the pastor can do all of the discipling. But where pastors and ministry leaders have created programs in order to encourage greater fervor in following Christ and loving His Church, we recommend observing trends in the culture and seeing where the Spirit may be blowing. It will require fortitude. But, where ministry leaders are increasingly frustrated with failed attempts, and those same ministry leaders have the urge to keep at it, we suspect there will be movement toward the corners anyway.

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Footnotes

  1. This is a moderately arbitrary number. Essentially, the question it answers is, ‘What is the limit to the number of people that one person can reasonably expect to meet with on a regular basis?’ A pastor could do all the personal discipleship himself, but that would also limit the church’s ability to add more people. Hence, the need for ‘scaled’ discipleship is introduced at some number, be it 40, 70, 100, etc.
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Posted by Dave Strunk and Ben Ruyack

Dave Strunk is lead pastor at Church of the Redeemer in Maryville, TN. Ben Ruyack is discipleship pastor at Church of the Redeemer.

5 Comments

  1. […] The Four Quadrants of Church Life in the Gray Zone […]

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  2. I think this is interesting. What do you make of the fact that everything in the consumer quadrant is low-risk, low-time *for the consumer,* but high-risk, high-time for whoever’s in charge of making it happen? It’s a totally different kind of risk/commitment structure to *be* an influencer, or to *run* a pub, than to follow or go to one. Is the suggestion perhaps that for the facilitators, that’s not a consumer thing but a platoon thing? I also think it’s worth paying attention to monetary or practical cost for some of these items: I find childcare is a much more complicated situation since the pandemic (fewer connections with potential sitters, more risk in exposing a sitter to illness, more cost to families who may be making less), so again, it can be a different kind of accessible to go to a pub (kids are in bed, other parent stays home) or follow an influencer (no childcare needed), or conversely to homeschool (kids are there with you), as opposed to running or attending a small group (what do you do with the kids for those two hours every one or two weeks, and if your income is shaky *and* your church’s giving is down, who pays for it?). Similarly, the middlebrow things you’re naming are also pricier things that may have to be tossed overboard if a family has a tight budget: Substack has a free option, and trade schools may be cheaper or (if, say, you’re looking at community college) lend themselves better to being fully funded by financial aid, whereas The Atlantic charges money, and federal need-based grants generally won’t get you that far at a state university.

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  3. […] built on a low-risk and low-commitment model (there is an excellent article fleshing this idea out here). So when political concerns or public health challenges or various ideologies popped up in our […]

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